Executive Presence: A Short Course

Several years ago I developed an assessment of executive presence for use with leaders. It became quite popular, widely used, and helpful. In the course of doing that work, it became clear to me that developing one’s executive presence, could become a form of adaptive, role-based identity development. As such, it could involve a further shaping of the person’s character, judgement, and approach to action.

Character

Know what you value and how your values align with your goals and actions. We can sort some of this out through private reflection, but doing it in dialogue with others works even better. When concretely examined in this way, we’re brought into close contact with our most vital strivings in life. It’s almost always also an act of reconciliation that restores or at least bolsters fidelity to our heartfelt beliefs and priorities. 

And when this is done, why wouldn’t we want to act from a consciousness of these bearings? Wouldn’t doing so present us with greatest sincerity and integrity? Would it not also express the kinder angels of our nature? In doing this, we discover just how necessary such reexamination of self, life, and what is most important us is. Virtue is never gained once and for all, not for we mortals.  

Judgment

Engaging in our role-based duties and guided by a consciousness of what is good, right, and proper, we see more clearly. We recognize moments of confusion and frustration, our own and others. Rather than sweeping past them, we consider them, without bracing or resisting, to see what they hold. In this way, the broader context and meaning come into view and pathways of informed action arise.  

And we’re then reminded that prudential wisdom favors the curious and receptive mind. Even as we welcome the ease of adaptive habits, we allow ourselves to notice the unease evoked by novel conditions for which they’re unsuited. New answers and decisions, those not yet born, require that we see how some habits now fail us. We see the new only when we first stop looking for what we expect or want to see. 

Action

All action expresses, asserts, and effects something. We can never fully discern the contingencies we will meet. But if our action is communicative and includes, involves, and coordinates the intentions and acts of all relevant actors, we’ll be best positioned to see and prudently respond to the contingencies that unfold before us. Strategic action is iterative, and it’s adaptively reasserted through execution.   

Is our character such as to make others trust, believe, speak honestly, share their feelings? And is our judgment free enough of fear, frustration, and arrogance to discern things as they really are? Are we, any of us who lead, formally or informally, contributing to this tenor of mind? If we can answer these questions in the affirmative, our approach to action will be more favorable, more adaptive.

Affection, Reflection, Responsibility

The flow of these three moments in the course of human action are quite common but often go unnoticed. We feel something that registers with significance (affect). It’s important. It compels our attention because it signals that something of value is at stake. Upon reflection, this felt value becomes a sentiment whose meaning - moral, prudential, or vital - provides us with reasons to care deeply. And in caring deeply, we form commitments of responsibility to act in fidelity to these values, for reasons that warrant risk-taking or sacrifice.

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This course of action is something we might experience individually, but it’s also something we engage in interactively with others. And when we do, we may face emotionally-charged differences in thought or belief that put us at odds with one another.  

It’s tempting to see this as a difference in ideas that should be settled rationally – let the best ideas win the day! But our values, sentiments, and the committed sense of responsibility they spawn are more complex than that. The reasons we care about are as much or more reasons of the heart than reasons of rational-logical discourse or argumentation.  

And this highlights one of the more notable distinctions between responsibility and accountability. The former is rooted in internal, value-based commitments that have won over our heart. The latter, accountabilities, are the role-based duties we have to others, to stakeholders to whom we are accountable in virtue of choosing to adopt a role (as partner, colleague, manager, parent). Of course, our responsibilities and accountabilities need not be in conflict.  

However, if we are to be a person of integrity, it is just these sometimes-competing pulls that we must reconcile, within our selves and between one another. And that’s where a unique kind of discourse is required. It’s better described as dialogue really, or even more simply as conversation. We must provide the “back story” that has affected us, the course of reflection and the sentiments arising from it that have moved us to care and take a stand.  

It’s not an argument, nor must there be an insistent tone. Even less are these qualities called for when we adopt an openness and receptivity to being affected by the stories of others. For by suspending argument, we are more likely to discover common reasons to care about the issues or matters at hand. Then, if there is compromise, it’s more likely to be a compromise that preserves the cause to which we are all committed.

When We Get Frustrated

More often than not, frustration involves a feeling that we’re not able to change a situation. It appears that there is no direct path of action available to us. We feel unfree, controlled by forces outside us. And then what happens? Well, some of us, especially men, become irritable or angry. Others, whether immediately or after trying the angry option, yield to a discouraged or avoidant position.  

As a coach and psychologist who consults mostly to highly educated and successful professionals and executives, I see a good deal of this. People in general, but this segment of the population in particular, can have a low tolerance for frustration. These expectations of being efficacious in action explains much of their success. But it can also blind them to their own limitation and vulnerabilities to frustration.  

Reacting Versus Responding

It’s a simple distinction, one that you may have considered before. It’s also a vitally important one that can significantly influence all that follows.  

To react is normal. We are “wired” for it, as fans of neuropsychology might say. But long before all this interest in the brain, there was a body of wisdom about how habits and habitual ways of functioning serve us well, and by no less a scholar than Aristotle in 4th century BC Greece. Studies today indicate that over 50% of our behavior in life – at home and at work – is guided by these learned patterns of action.  

Habits stick because they work. American pragmatist, John Dewey, knew this. He also knew that thought (reflective thought) is most often triggered when habits fail us. The most adaptive among us, therefore, shift from habit to a more deliberative style of problem solving with ease. That’s the basic difference between reacting and responding. But there something more to consider.  

Dewey also knew that this “instrumental” mode of responding and thought works differently with technical and nontechnical problems. Technical problems tend to activate our analytical, means-end style of thought. Nontechnical problems are best understood through a less controlling mode of mind. Openness, inquiry, suspension of cause-effect hypotheses, and noticing the felt sense of issues is key.  

Indeed, this less analytical state of mind consciously relaxes control, allows our receptive mind to see what is always already there. This insight is usually gained from intuition, our felt sense – yes, I mean emotionally toned awareness what seems important, valuable, “off”, or good, right, and proper. More could be said about how to navigate this distinctive mode of mental processing, but not here, not now.  

Foreclosing

What makes this shift from reacting to responding and from frustration to productive action most difficult is the way we can prematurely give up and foreclose on the possibilities of change. This can happen when we are stubbornly committed to our rational-analytical mind when this is the wrong mode of mind for the problem at hand. For some, they just don’t, can’t believe in this other mode of mind.  

But there are also problems that require interpersonal solutions. And the relationships we rely upon for working out these problems can be subject to the same limitations that affect our individual minds. We form norms and embrace certain shared values that have shaped our habits of communication and joint problem-solving.  Among our habits, we can form “fixed” impressions of what the other is capable of.  

The fixations in belief we have about one another can operate with such iron-clad certainty that we can habitually and selectively look for evidence of their continued hold on others. And it is this constraint that I am often called upon to help alleviate. It’s often the case that a “disruptive” third party is needed to help disconfirm the self-limiting beliefs of one another that block progress. 

Push “Reset”

Reset is the act that evokes a reflective pause. It’s the pause that creates space to notice what is always already there and most clearly discerned through intuition and our felt sense. It’s also the mechanism through which we’re encouraged to suspend application of the “tried-and-true” habits of analytical mind that may block access to what is best seen with our receptive mind.  

What makes this kind of reset difficult for bright, ambitious, self-directing professionals are their needs for control and their skepticism of the more passive, patient qualities of mind that require humility and acceptance. What makes the disruptive third party helpful is not mere dis-ruptiveness, but a special kind of inter-ruption that calls attention to how we’re being self-defeating in the moment, as we’re doing it.  

That’s not always easy because the tension and conflict that holds an individual in place, a bad place, or that holds a couple (intimate or colleagues) in conflict, is an intense conflict. It can feel threatening to the third party, unless the third sees and knows it for what it is, and thereby draws encouragement to intervene. Of course, having some skill in this kind of intervention helps!

The Tethers We Choose

Roles, Accountabilities, Responsibilities, and Freedom. These are the roots of so much pain and joy in life. And we have choices in how to handle them, more than you might believe.  

About Roles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) looked askance at socially defined roles and all the other structures and norms of “civilization”. He felt that they might alienate us from our more authentic and natural sources of self and vitality. And over one hundred years later, Max Weber, a founder of sociology characterized the bureaucratic systems arising in the industrial age as an “iron cage.” 

Both men lived in sophisticated in sophisticated European cultures, France and Germany respectively, and both adopted roles in life. They also thought critically about what role-taking implies and were keenly aware that to be free is to electively adopt a role. And they knew that in this choice, we make ourselves susceptible to role-based demands others, to accountabilities.  

Accountabilities

In taking a role, we face expectations from others, for it is after all a socially defined mode of being that we are taking on as a commitment, a burden or duty that becomes greater as we enter adulthood. To be a committed life partner or spouse, an employee, a manager, a citizen, etc., at least insofar as we take these roles seriously, implies accountabilities to others. 

We can live in fidelity to what’s expected of us in these roles or not. At some level, even if it’s tacitly, we will be aware of whether we’re fulfilling this role, honoring our duties to others, to those to whom our role is accountable. We may even choose to defy established ways of defining such accountabilities, but if we are concerned about virtue, we’ll take responsibility for stipulating and justifying these deviations.  

Responsibility

What is that warrants our choice to defy established norms? I think it is value-based considerations of what is good, right, and proper about living out this role. And we don’t simply invent such values. We feel them as imperatives that register with weightiness, meaning, importance, and consequences. And among them may be a sense of responsibility to embrace the role with a vision of good looks like. 

Even though the norms of Christianity seemed to require Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran minister in Germany) to obey the commandment to not kill, he felt a higher duty to prevent a greater evil that was represented by Hitler’s reign. He joined others to plot Hitler’s assassination, and he was hung for doing it. It was a significant deviation from what people generally accepted of a Christian minister. 

Freedom

Responsibilities are freely accepted claims on us as persons. They may be grounded in vital values (what is healthy and adaptive), prudential values (what will best achieve the goal), and moral values (what is good, right, and proper). These values are embedded in historically shaped traditions of belief. Still, it is our heart-felt attachment to them, our identification with them that give them their claim on us.

We choose to live and act in fidelity to them because it is a preferred way of living, more virtuous. We are most free when we honor these claims. We are most responsible when we approach our choice of roles and our accountabilities from this inner-directed sense of responsibility. We take responsibility not by mere fiat, but by fidelity to our values and with a duty to help other understand them when asked.  

The Power of Dialogue

We can assert our freedom through independent action based upon private reflection. But even then, there is inner dialogue, what a 17th century British philosopher, Lord Shaftesbury, call soliloquy. Self is, after all, is social isn’t it? We are situated in a world and communal experience in which we feel needs to love and be loved, to act and to interact with others – it’s a world that we inherit, but we also shape. 

Therefore, let me close by suggesting that whether you find the locus of dialogue within yourself or with another person, or both, it’s a dialogue worth having more than once because the roles we take and the challenges we face continually present us with needs to make more choices.

For Leaders: Emotions & Judgment

What I address here is the primacy of emotions. It’s more than and distinct from emotional intelligence because of the informational and motivational meaning that emotional data provides. They tell us that something is important, but also reveal a good deal about the values at stake that make things important.  

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Emotional Meaning

Emotional meaning is given intuitively. We sense that something is amiss or that everything will be all right. We feel that a pattern of behavior or social situation is off or unhealthy, or that it feels good, invigorating. We have the sense that a course of action being considered is not the right thing to do, it’s wrong, or that it feels right and true to our core beliefs. 

Of course, the value-based feelings that incline us to believe and act are not infallible. We may miss something. Our reactions might be affected by stress, strain, and fatigue. Or perhaps we could simply benefit from examining and understanding more clearly what our feelings are telling us. In any case, it’s often prudent to reflect upon our intuitive sense of things before acting on it.  

Learning from Our Emotions

Disregarding our emotions and felt sense of a situation could deprive us of important insights into what is the good, right, or proper thing to do. The simple truth is that we intuitively feel the importance of many issues or risks long before we rationally know them. So even when we don’t know why we’re troubled and hesitating to affirm an action, that in itself may be reason enough to pause, talk, and reflect.  

As we begin to respond this way to our felt sense of concern, or even our enthusiastic sense of support for action, we become more skilled in learning from our emotions. They are inherently more complex and do not have all the clean edges of our more familiar rational thoughts and words. To cultivate more fluency in the rich, complex, and nuanced language of feelings you may want to read some poetry.  

Poetic Revelation (truth)

Let’s begin by considering the evocative emotional experience of reading a classic Robert Frost poem, Mending Wall. It begins this way: 

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

We learn that the stone wall separates farms and farmers by virtue of unquestioned norms of property ownership, privacy, and social separation. The “mischief” in Frost challenges these norms: 

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."

But nature does not bend to their will; it gives these men a new opportunity to affirm or question their man-made norms every year. Ironically, they conspire to keep the wall between them:  

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

Emotional Meaning and Judgment

Emotions move us, and they can cut both ways. If I am feeling discouraged, disadvantaged, or unfairly treated, I may generate feelings of envy and resentment toward others. On the other hand, if instead I am feeling included, respected, and encouraged, my judgments of others may be more positive and my decisions to be helpful more energetic.  

My resistance to an idea may consist in worries that simply need to be aired, discussed, addressed. And after doing so, the resistance may melt away; indeed, I may discover rising levels of motivation to actively support the idea. The reflective examination of our feelings, the data we know through our emotions, takes us further into the matter at hand and almost always makes us more discerning.  

Judgments formed by the use of reflection upon emotional meaning are usually better, smarter, and more justifiable to others. And isn’t the ability to explain and justify our judgments a good thing, empowering, and motivating? And even when a process of reflection arrives at something less than a full-throated endorsement by all, isn’t it better for people to have reasons for an action?